Most people are familiar with the huge redwood trees in California. They are the largest living things on the face of the earth, often reaching heights of 300 feet. These majestic trees have stood for centuries against earthquakes, landslides and wildfires. They have no known diseases or damaging insects.
One might assume such giants would have massive and extremely deep root systems. In fact, the main roots of each tree are little more than an inch in diameter and extend no more than six to 10 feet deep. Yet the roots extend outward up to 60 feet and intertwine with the roots of other redwoods. It is this system of mutual support that allows these trees to have such long life spans.
God has specially designed humans to live in community. Like the redwoods, our individual survival in life is not dependent on our own efforts to sink deep roots and stand alone, but to spread out roots and join in interdependent relationships.
We each live within several different communities based around our family, work or interests. While these can give us a sense of connection to something larger than ourselves, they most often fail to meet our need for deep connection.
We were created for what the early church called koinonia, a family fellowship based not on biology but on deep spiritual connections. In his first letter, Peter gives his readers instructions on how to live in this spiritual community.
Live distinct from the world (1 Peter 4:1-7)
Membership in any community involves certain common thought patterns. This certainly is true for believers called to take on the mind of Christ. Peter tells his readers to arm themselves with Jesus’ way of thinking. While he directly associates this with Jesus’ view toward suffering, in light of the following verses, this also includes his attitude toward sin and our interpersonal relationships.
This takes an intentional act of the will since this way of thinking is contrary to our natural inclinations. We are encouraged to no longer live our lives seeking to satisfy the appetites of the flesh as we once did, but to be distinct in our refusal to join in the “flood of dissipation.”
The behaviors Peter lists often were part of the worship practices of the pagan religions, and failure to participate usually meant becoming an outcast within the community. Persecution in those contexts and for those reasons, therefore, was to be expected when one sought to be right before God.
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Living this distinct lifestyle did not put one in a place of superiority but brought one into a new community of believers who enjoyed real life through God’s Spirit and would be rewarded when God judged humanity.
The hope is that our distinct lifestyle will be attractive and draw others into the fellowship. The formation of this spiritual community is the reason the gospel is preached and its reward is enjoyed by those martyrs and others who are now dead.
Love one another (1 Peter 4:8-9)
No other characteristic of believers is more attractively distinctive than the love for one another we are called to demonstrate. Jesus, in fact, told us our love for one another would be the thing that most identified us as his disciples (John 13:34-35).
In writing about unbelievers’ assessment of the early church, the third-century church leader Tertullian wrote, “‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).”
As we read Acts 2:42-47, we see how love was demonstrated by action. This is a picture of the deep or fervent love Peter calls us to in verse 8. It is not simply an emotion but is intentional and active. It refuses to join in gossip and always is ready to forgive in order to preserve the fellowship.
This does not mean it ignores or condones sin. But it is humble enough not to allow hurt feelings to lead to bitterness and the exclusion of the offender. This is the kind of love that is far beyond anything the world offers and is available only as we live in God’s spiritual community.
Serve one another (1 Peter 4:10-11)
As mentioned above, love most clearly is evident when it is active in service to others. As believers, we are rightfully grateful for God’s grace on our lives, but we often may forget that we were never intended to be reservoirs of that grace. God pours grace into our lives so we might be channels of that grace into the lives of others.
To enable us to be channels, God has given each one gifts to be used within the community for building up each other. Whether one’s gift involves speaking through teaching or offering words of encouragement or actions of benevolence, all should use their gifts to strengthen the community with the goal that God might be glorified and praised by those inside and outside of the community.
As each believer lives a distinctive lifestyle of love and service, we are able to fulfill our role as beacons of light into the darkness of this world and to draw all people into God’s spiritual community.